An epicurean excursion with a truffle expert and his four-legged friends.
The lush rolling hills of Tuscany are celebrated for their bountiful produce. And from late summer through early winter, the region is a gold mine for one of Italy’s most coveted culinary treasures: truffles.
Truffle-loving visitors to Tuscany are able to participate in the ultimate epicurean adventure—foraging for the precious tubers with a certified hunter and two specially-trained dogs, then having their bounty cooked for them as part of a multi-course meal.
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The property is set among 12 private acres of rich countryside studded with majestic oak trees, under which truffles grow at the roots.
Nestled in the hills of Fiesole, overlooking the beautiful city of Florence, is another Tuscan gem: Il Salviatino. This handsomely restored 15th-century villa embodies Italy’s romantic past with its vaulted ceilings, lavish décor, magnificent marble fireplaces, and a remarkable collection of 19th-century frescoes. The property is set among 12 private acres of rich countryside studded with majestic oak trees, under which truffles grow at the roots. Il Salviatino offers guests the opportunity to forage for said truffles with area expert Guilio the Truffle Hunter.
Giulio Benuzzi is a member of the prestigious Tuscan Truffle Association (called Associazione Tartufai delle Colline della Bassa Valdelsa) and is one of the foremost truffle authorities in the world. He cultivated his deep-rooted passion for truffles after running a bed-and-breakfast where he offered guests a range of authentic culinary tours. In 2008, he decided to close the popular B&B after 10 years to focus on truffles full-time, which meant undergoing extensive training and exams to acquire his prestigious hunting license. After completing all the hard work and hands-on experience, Giulio needed to find the perfect companion dog to hunt with (in the 1970’s, Italian truffle hunters stopped using pigs because they were too destructive to the forests, so they began to train dogs for the task).
Giulio has been working with his beloved 9-year old Eda since she was a puppy. And last spring, he took on another young pup named Maga. The two adorably shaggy, energetic canines are Lagotti Romagnolo (meaning “lake dogs”)—an active breed from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region known to be both skilled at swimming and truffle hunting. To train Eda and Maga, Giulio first teaches them to retrieve balls with a tiny piece of truffle attached and rewards the dogs with biscuits after they successfully sniff out and bring the balls back. After several more phases of rigorous training, as well as feeding the dogs truffles daily so they crave the flavor, they are officially ready to hunt.
In addition to leading guided truffle tours in specific Italian forests and around his home located just south of Florence, Guilio is exclusively available for guests of Il Salviatino—a unique opportunity since truffles can be found right on the hotel grounds.
Before venturing out on the excursion, Giulio and his dogs will greet participants on the property’s outside patio, where they’ll learn about the art of truffle hunting and its rich history, identify different truffle varieties, and establish a sense of trust with Eda and Maga—over a glass of vino, of course.
It’s a warm, sunny fall afternoon when I meet Giulio. I find him incredibly knowledgeable, funny, and fascinating as he schools me in all things truffle, and I thoroughly enjoy becoming buddies with friendly Eda and Maga (the dog lover in me couldn’t be more excited). Since Maga is only five-and-a-half months old, Giulio isn’t sure how well she will do (since this is one of her first hunts and most dogs need a full year of training before mastering the skill), but he remains optimistic.
Tuscany produces several varieties of both black and white truffles at different times throughout the year, but fall is peak season for the rare delicacy. Our hunt is specifically for ripe black autumn truffles, which boast deeply intoxicating aromas and rich, earthy, umami flavors.
Our hunt is specifically for ripe black autumn truffles, which boast deeply intoxicating aromas and rich, earthy, umami flavors.
My husband and I set off with the truffle-hunting trio down a narrow, winding path deep into wooded terrain. Eda and Maga take the lead, trotting through the brush while furiously sniffing the soil. Giulio shouts “Vai, vai!” (Go, go!) to encourage them. Within minutes, Maga stops at the base of a wide tree trunk and starts vigorously digging with her front paws. After Giulio commands her to stop, Maga flops down next to the hole. Her curly brown and white fur is dust-covered, and she appears eager. Giulio crouches down and uses a specialized steel spade to gingerly extract a hefty, golf ball-sized black truffle from the dirt. He inhales a big whiff of the fragrant fungi and hands it to me. “Mamma mia, she found one!”
We continue on, and over the course of about an hour, we gather a total of five sizable truffles. Surprisingly, young Maga stole the show and found four of them, though seasoned Eda was never far behind. Having well-trained dogs is the key to truffle hunting success.
“Mamma mia, she found one!”
Back at Salviatino, we present our bounty to the staff as they explain our dinner options. The chef at the on-site restaurant, La Cucina del Salviatino, will prepare a meal showcasing our hand-picked truffles to be enjoyed on the expansive front patio (complete with majestic vistas of the stunning Florentine skyline) or in a dining room set in the grand, wood-paneled library. Shortly after settling in for dinner, we are presented with three truffle-topped courses: a soft poached egg resting on creamy potato soup blanketed in truffle slivers, a twirl of delicate handmade egg noodles finished with thin truffle shavings, and a flavorful bistecca accented with grilled vegetables and even more black truffle—all savored with plenty of Chianti. The chef used two full truffles for our decadent meal; we got to take the remaining three home.
Discovering Tuscany’s beloved truffles was a thrilling adventure, and eating them just hours later as part of a beautifully prepared feast made for a truly unforgettable day.